OC Theater scene just got a whole lot worse

Weekly contributing writer Joel Beers checks in on the recent developments in OC's theater scene:

The Orange County Register reported Monday that the city of Garden Grove may finally have a tenant to take over the two city-owned theaters on Main Street: the Gem Theatre, a former movie house turned 250-seat inside theater, and the approximately 500-seat Festival Amphitheatre, the county's best outdoor venue.

The theaters have been vacant for nearly two years after the Grove Theater Center split after 12 years of trying to balance what the city wanted—community theater crap—and more diverse plays, including new works, adventurous Samuel Beckett offerings, and the best thing to ever hit Orange County theater: the Troubadour Theatre Company.

The Grove, which was comprised of Kevin Cochran and Charles Johansen, two East Coast imports whose talents and vision were under-appreciated in stodgy Garden Grove, are now based in Burbank, and a 2007 world premiere it produced, Film Chinois, recently won best new play laurels in the 2007 Ovation awards.

While it's cool that a resident company might soon move into the space, it's hardly grounds to celebrate too wildly when you consider who it is: One More Productions, which, over the past four years, has given Orange County audiences such riveting fare as Bye Bye Birdie, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and Little Shop of Horrors.

Don't look for that pedestrian sensibility to change if One More Productions gets the lease to both spaces. According to the Reg article, the company's artistic director said that if his company takes over the Gem, he plans to organize community theater workshops for children and adults, and open it up for community events and meetings.

What's that mean? Yet another theater devoted to lame-ass musicals and kid's fare, the kind of weak sauce slathered across every weekend night across a a dozen amateur and semi-professional stages across the county (i.e., any theater with "community" or "civic light opera" in its title).

I'm all for theater of any kind (well, not really), but is this really the best that the city of Garden Grove can get for the best theater complex in the county not named South Coast Repertory or the Orange County Performing Arts Center? Bye Bye fucking Birdie?

When you consider that the company has proposed doing the upgrades itself in exchange for a 10-year rent-free lease from the city, it's clear that it's close to getting one hell of a sweetheart deal.

Good for them; bad for local theater and audiences looking for something more distinctive than stale, recycled yawnfests.

Former OC Weekly editor Will Swaim long wondered why the county's good storefront theaters like Rude Guerilla, Hunger Artists and Stages didn't band together and rent some space, an umbrella space that would allow all the various entities to produce shows without the grind of coming up with rent every month.

It never happened, probably because no one ever took the lead in seriously considering such a venture. I tried a small version of that at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center a few summers ago in Fullerton. Three separate companies producing shows under the banner of the Orange County Theatre Festival. Everyone got paid, and we sold more than $25,000 in tickets. It could work. But the Muckenthaler people are absolutely fucking clueless and don't know the gold mine they're sitting on, so that kind of fizzled out.

Hindsight is 20-20 and all that clichéd jazz, but with a little bit of initiative and genuine cooperation among the county's storefront theaters (comprised of very talented people with big egos and ultra-thin skins), a permanent facility in Garden Grove could have happened for these folks who struggle every month just to stay afloat.

If One More Productions winds up securing two of the best venues in the county without paying rent for the next 10 years, then the people leading those companies--as well as Shakespeare Orange County, the Maverick Theater, and the Chance in Anaheim-- should give themselves a mighty kick in their asses.


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